A ‘Beautiful’ Book


On the second last day of January, 2012, Sydney turns on a day so bright and shiny, it feels like a celebration. After so much rain this summer, suddenly there is dazzling light everywhere. All the trees look lush and deeply green, their foliage well-rinsed.

At 10 am, it’s 30 degrees. As I walk from the Cathedral Car Park toward Pitt Street, there is cool shade under the Port Jackson figs in Hyde Park, but a burst of cicadas greets me when I emerge into sunlight again at the big crossing over Park Street – a high decibel blast, twinned with whipper-snippers trimming the grass.

I’m on my way to a meeting with my publisher, John Knight, at Pitt Street Poetry. That also feels like something to celebrate. The book of poetry John is preparing to publish has been ‘in progress’ since 1999. I finished it – finally (I’d imagined it was finished several times before), almost unbelievably – when I was in Paris last year.

As many of the poems in the book owed their existence to Paris and a previous residency there in 1994, there was something very right and deeply satisfying about completing the collection back in the place where it began, but even so it was a long time to be working on a manuscript, so I’m relieved and grateful that it’s now on the way to becoming a real book.

And not just ‘a’ book, but a book in three forms: a new-fashion e-book; a traditional paperback; and a ‘beautiful’ book, a limited edition version with specially commissioned artwork. It’s a wonderful reward for my long wait.

At our meeting today, I’m going to meet the artist John has chosen. He’s a youngish Sydney artist named Oliver Watts. I’ve seen some of his paintings and liked them, and Oliver has read my poems and said hopefully that he’s keen to try to make art to go with them – but so far we haven’t met. Nor has there been any real discussion about what exactly this art could be like!

That is what we talk about, tentatively, in the comparative calm of the light-filled office above busy Pitt Street. Oliver has brought along a workbook of sketches and I have my list of Contents for Travelling with the Wrong Phrase Books. My book is divided into six sections, so we decide to aim for six images, one to introduce each section, plus one for the cover. Probably line drawings? 

Some of Oliver’s artwork is satirical, some is intensely lyrical. Sometimes he uses words in collages; sometimes he uses colours, which sing … Obviously, he is a talented artist – but how do you illustrate a poetry book?

I’m open to all possibilities. The only thing I know I don’t want is art which is too literal in its response to my words. I don’t want ‘illustrations’, but art which will complement the poetry.

The meeting goes well. It feels like a memorable event, not just to me, but to all the Pitt Street Poetry team. Photos are taken (you can see them on Pitt Street Poetry’s Facebook page!). We celebrate by having lunch at the Thai restaurant across the street. And then I wave Oliver goodbye and resolve to leave him in peace to do whatever artwork he chooses.

At this point, I think we are all very excited, but also a little nervous. Will it work? We’re not sure, but the possibility that it could, and that the result will be something very special – a beautiful book to treasure – is worth trying for.

Back at home, slightly dazed and still in some disbelief at what is happening, that night I write up notes of the day in my journal. I don’t want to jinx this project with Oliver, so that is where the account of the meeting stays – until there’s a development to report. I’ll tell you more about that in my next Jotting.

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